Joan Paul: An In at the Inn
Everybody has COVID stories. Joan Paul’s is about the Griswold Inn, owned by the Paul family. The Pauls and the Gris have weathered crises before.
“There was the gas crisis in 2000s, then people couldn’t get here and the financial crisis, but there has never been anything like COVID,” Joan says.
For much of the time during COVID, the Gris was able to open, but not at a full complement of diners. Still, there were 600 reservations for Easter. All preparations were ready for a holiday dinner, until the surprise news on Easter morning: one of the kitchen staff had come down with COVID. No meals could be served.
Plans had to be completely revised, but there was a solution: takeout. Everybody who came expecting a meal got one, except packaged to go. And all the meals were free.
Even then, there was an unexpected twist. Among the first to arrive, Joan remembers, were local television anchors Kara Sundlun of WFSB and her husband, Dennis House of WTNH with their children.
They did what reporters do when they encounter a good story. They covered it. The anchors did interviews, and as a result, the Gris not only averted gastronomic disappointment, but got some positive publicity for their handling the situation.
Now, Joan wants everybody to know that the Gris is completely open for business, and the wine bar, which had been used as a regular dining room, is newly refurbished and serving special menu along with its wine selections.
“The furniture has a more streamlined look,” Joan says.
To keep track of their ratings for different selections, the wine bar placemats have space for people to note their reactions.
“You can explore and take notes; it’s a way to have fun and learn,” Joan says.
The 18-foot mural behind the bar, showing what was then the steamboat dock and the riverfront a turn-of the century Essex, has an unusual feature. With the flip of a switch the mural gently undulates from side-to-side. Usually, however, it remains still so that guests in the wine bar do not think that suddenly the room is in motion around them.
The Paul family has owned the Gris for 27 years this month. Purchasing the property is another story of the unexpected. Jeff Paul, then living in Los Angeles but back in Essex on a visit, is a collector of art and antiques. He saw the late Bill Winterer, then the owner of the Gris, and told him he had seen and was contemplating purchasing, a painting of the Gris, done by Guy Wiggins, an Old Lyme Impressionist who lived from 1883 to 1962.
Winterer had another suggestion: why buy the paining when you can buy the real thing? The Paul family considered the proposition.
Joan, who is married to Doug Paul, was the only one with restaurant experience. She had headed up marketing and public relations for Clyde’s Restaurants, operators of a successful restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area. But she was not sure about purchasing the Gris.
“I thought maybe it was something to do in 10 years,” Joan says. She had something else she was thinking about more immediately. She was due to give birth in less than a month.
Still, the family decision was to buy the Gris, and her baby came two weeks early. “I think it was stress,” she says.
Joan, nonetheless, was no stranger to the Gris. Her family had moved to Essex when she, then Joan Lawder, was 13, and her first job was a breakfast waitress at the restaurant.
“I was a breakfast waitress, a dinner waitress, a cocktail waitress, and I worked at the Gris summers in high school and college,” she says. Joan is a graduate of Valley Regional High School and Bucknell College.
Doug was two years ahead of her at Valley Regional. Their first date, as Joan recalls it, included dinner at the Gris.
Joan describes what she does at the Gris today as “just a little bit of everything,” not only what is happening at the moment but the course the business will take. “I do a lot of strategic planning. I love that part of the business,” she says.
Now, Joan says, the Gris is coming into its most demanding season, with December the busiest month. Joan says there are more Europeans at this time of year, coming to New England for the fall colors. She also recalls a delegation of Chinese businessmen visiting Old Saybrook who were brought to the Gris to introduce them to the classic atmosphere of New England.
“We’ve met people from all over the world. We love their stories,” she says. “It’s given a rich dimension to our lives.”
Still, there is time in Joan’s schedule to relax. She and Doug like to go out on the Connecticut River in their boat on summer evenings. Joan was a tennis player and now she plays pickleball. She had some shoulder problems that sent her to physical therapy. She says when she went into the physical therapy waiting room, she always had someone to greet. “It was the pickleball crowd,” she says.
After more than two decades, Joan still feels the excitement of running the Gris. And there is no talk of retirement. “We love the Gris and want to run it,” she says. “We have no plans for going anywhere.”